Two Years After Biden Personally Promised Aid, Grizzly Flats Wildfire Victims Are Still Struggling

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Lillian Tweten Contributor
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  • FEMA has denied Individual Assistance to residents of Grizzly Flats, California, for over two years, even though the majority of the town was destroyed in the 2021 Caldor Fire, residents told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • President Biden promised to help the residents after he visited the burn site, but many are still struggling.
  • “Our lives have been hell and have been full of frustration and grief and anger,” Jennifer McKim-Hibbard told the DCNF. “It feels like we have been forgotten.”

Victims of the Caldor Fire in Grizzly Flats, California, are still waiting for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) almost two years after President Joe Biden promised aid to the devastated small town.

The wildfire, which began on August 14, 2021 and burned for more than two months, destroyed more than 600 homes in Grizzly Flats — the majority of structures in the town — in less than 15 minutes, CBS News reported. When residents applied for Individual Assistance that would have helped rebuild their destroyed homes, FEMA determined that the wildfire “was not of such severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of the Individual Assistance program,” the Los Angeles Times reported, even though Biden had promised help for Grizzly Flats.

“I went through the whole process of applying to FEMA. . . and there was no help whatsoever,” Edwina Grefsheim, a resident who lost her home to the fire, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “[FEMA Individual Assistance] would’ve helped us, if not to rebuild, then at least to survive a little bit easier. We were already living paycheck to paycheck before the fire. Essentially, we started back at zero with nothing.”

Grefsheim, her husband and their two young sons live in a small 28-square-foot trailer on the land where their house once stood, she told the DCNF. They use duffle bags to store their personal belongings and struggle to make ends meet on a monthly basis.

Although it did not cause any casualties, the Caldor Fire was the 15th largest California wildfire and caused $81.8 million in damage to the town, according to a letter written by George Turnboo, a supervisor in the county.

Grizzly Flats residents hoped that President Biden would reverse FEMA’s decision after he visited California and took an aerial tour of the town in September 2021, according to ABC News. Biden promised at a briefing on the Caldor Fire on September 13, 2021 that he would help the affected area, according to the White House transcript.

“We’re going to take care of them,” Biden had said.

“They turned their back on us,” Mary Lower, a resident who had to permanently move out of the area after the wildfire, told the DCNF. “Biden flew over where the fire was but he never authorized FEMA. We didn’t get chainsaws, or water, we got nothing.”

Local politicians, including Republican Rep. Kevin Kiley and Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein, attempted to appeal Biden’s decision multiple times with letters, but received no response from the president or FEMA, Kiley told the DCNF. He requested more relief on Aug. 18 and invited Biden to visit Grizzly Flats to assess the situation during the president’s recent vacation in the area, but received no response.

“My issue lies with the president,” Kiley told DCNF. “I don’t understand his inaction because he made a specific promise. These are people that have lost everything. We still have people who are struggling there mightily. He’s had every opportunity to rectify the situation and hasn’t.”

Melissa White, who lost her home in the fire, currently lives with seven other members of her family in a few RVs set up on their old property, she told the DCNF. The RVs constantly leak and only one has an operating fridge, but the family cannot afford to rent a house in the area.

“Everything’s just so hard. I think about it and tear up half the time,” White said. “I don’t know how long we can live up here like this. We have no home. It’s hard to have something you worked for so long to be taken away, and to have to live in an RV because you can’t afford rent around here. It’s either food or a house.”

FEMA only approved Public Assistance, which removes burned trees and replaces damaged public buildings, to help residents initially clean up debris in Grizzly Flats, even after Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom specifically requested Individual Assistance in his second letter to the agency on September 10, 2021.

“Where the hell are you? Where were you?” Lower told the DCNF of the government’s response. “There’s no reason why we didn’t get FEMA, other than politics. There’s no way you’re gonna lose 600 homes to the ground and say it wasn’t a big enough fire. They never even showed up to look at the devastation. They could’ve helped a lot of people that needed money and chainsaws and generators. FEMA needs to step up.”

FEMA determines who is eligible to receive aid based on how many resources the state and county have available to respond and what the extent of the damage is, Robert Barker, the FEMA public affairs specialist for the California area, told DCNF. Factors that determine eligibility can include property loss, community demographics, the number of casualties or injuries and related unemployment.

FEMA ultimately uses a computer program called the National Emergency Management Information System to guide the majority of their decisions for aid, according to a former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) presidential appointee by the Trump administration.

“It is the repository of all of the information that comes into the about an individual, and then it makes them eligible,” the former DHS appointee told DCNF, who requested anonymity. “Then they’ll get a caseworker who’s on the phone that looks at their system and determines eligibility.”

GRIZZLY FLATS, CA - AUGUST 18: A residential home is burnt with a child's toy car still intact on August 18, 2021 in Grizzly Flats, California. The Caldor Fire raged without containment through rugged forested areas of El Dorado County destroying structures as it grew to over 50,000 acres. (Photo by Allison Dinner/Getty Images)

GRIZZLY FLATS, CA – AUGUST 18: A residential home is burnt with a child’s toy car still intact on August 18, 2021 in Grizzly Flats, California.(Photo by Allison Dinner/Getty Images)

Residents blamed the destruction on the U.S. Forest Service, who pulled all firefighters out of the area at 1:43 a.m. on Aug. 15, just hours after the fire started, and while the blaze was still raging, CBS reported. The agency had allowed the forest surrounding the town to become overgrown with brush and completed only a small portion of the Trestle Project, which began in 2013 and would have thinned the forest surrounding the town to create a fire break wall, according to ABC10.

Many Grizzly Flats residents filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service in August 2023 over its lack of action during the first crucial hours of the fire, according to CBS News. Several residents told the DCNF that the agency pulled every available firefighter out of the area overnight and abandoned the town to radio silence for over 12 hours, leaving the town to burn.

“Any fireman who has been the fireman, knows you put every asset you have toward putting out the fire,” Tobe Magidson, a Grizzly Flats resident who now lives in a fifth-wheel with his family, told DCNF. “We had planes available on the ground that could fly at night and see through smoke. Their assets were not called. To me that’s not doing everything you have. We didn’t see any boots on the ground. There was nothing. There was no U.S. forest service.”

Residents have tried to rebuild their town with resources similar to what Individual Assistance would have provided, creating a community Facebook page called the “Grizzly Flats Rebuild Coalition” and a resource program for those in need called the West Slope Foundation. Both groups attempt to give residents aid, such as help rebuilding homes and giving food and clothes to families who cannot afford even their most essential needs, according to Jennifer McKim Hibbard, a Grizzly Flats resident who helped started the Foundation and helps run the Coalition alongside Tobe Magidson.

“Our lives have been hell and have been full of frustration and grief and anger,” McKim-Hibbard told the DCNF. “It feels like we have been forgotten. We didn’t get that FEMA Individual Assistance. We have been struggling as a community to really rebuild ourselves. . . [and] a lot of us will not be going home because there are no resources to help us go home. It’s the worst-case scenario.”

FEMA, the National Forest Service and Nancy Ward, the director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, did not immediately respond to DCNF’s request for comment.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to include additional information provided by a FEMA spokesman about how the agency calculates supplemental disaster assistance.

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